Paralympians speak out about disability benefit cuts

Several British medallists could lose much-needed financial support when Iain Duncan Smith's Personal Independence Payment replaces Disability Living Allowance on 8 April.

Only six months ago, in a period of gold-tinted optimism for disability, British Paralympians were heralded as heroes. From 8 April (pdf), Disability Living Allowance, or DLA – the benefit which helps many pay for care and mobility costs – is being scrapped and, along with more than two million other disabled people, many Paralympians now facing losing the support they rely on.

DLA’s replacement – Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – is designed to cut £2.24bn annually from the welfare budget by 2015-16. The number eligible for the new award will be smaller and the assessment criteria are narrower. According to the Government’s own estimate, the changes will see 500,000 people lose their benefit.

So what do our Paralympian heroes (copyright all papers) make of the changes? Sophie Christiansen who won three gold medals at the 2012 Paralympics in dressage, tells me that receiving Disability Living Allowance enabled her to compete in the Games.  

She has cerebral palsy and relies on the benefit to pay for the extra care support she needs when she goes away to competitions, as well as the wheelchair and scooter she uses to get around venues.

She can’t walk long distances or use public transport very easily on her own and DLA paid for the car she needs to drive herself to training.  

 

Sophie Christiansen. Photo: Getty

The Paralympians might have been sold as "superhumans" during the Games, but the reality is that many of them have extra financial needs because of their disabilities. Christiansen tells me it can be a struggle to meet them financially.

“The Paralympics were just the glamorous end product . . .” Christiansen says. “I get the same amount of funding as Olympians and they don't have to cover disability-related costs with that money.”

Natasha Baker, a para-equestrian who won two gold medals at the London Games, says she also owes her success to receiving Disability Living Allowance. As a child, it funded her riding lessons as a therapeutic sport. She now relies on it for transport, using the Mobility scheme within DLA to lease a car. 

She tells me she’s concerned that once PIP is introduced, she will no longer be eligible for support. Her disability – a neurological disorder that causes severe muscle weakness – leaves her needing help with care and mobility but it can vary from day to day.

“If I have the assessment on a day I’m feeling good . . .” she says. “I’m just really worried.”

To be awarded PIP, claimants will have to score a certain number of points in relation to 12 activities, such as washing and bathing or moving around. Recent concessions to guidance mean that assessors will be required by law to consider whether claimants can perform tasks repeatedly, safely and reliably but there remains concern that the criteria are too tight and the assessment style is too restrictive. For example, Natasha Baker stresses that her mobility can depend on anything from time of day to the surface or angle of what she’s walking on. 

Baker, who was awarded an MBE this year, now finds herself worrying whether the Government will stop the money she relies on. 

She tells me she’d like those in charge of the benefit changes to spend a week in a wheelchair to see how difficult it is to get around. “There are other ways of cutting and saving money in this country,” she adds. “I don’t see why they have to target people who are vulnerable.”

 

Natasha Baker. Photo: Getty

Tara Flood, a retired Paralympic gold medallist swimmer and world record holder, says the removal of DLA is “a government attack on disabled people’s lives”. She is angry that people like her are seen as “easy targets” and tells me she’s “extremely worried” about being assessed.

It’s a concern that has only been exacerbated by the knowledge that Atos, the private healthcare company behind the much-criticised Work Capability Assessment, will be carrying out the majority of PIP assessments, having been given more than £400m worth of contracts. Last summer, Flood took part in a protest against Atos’ sponsorship of the Paralympics and tells me she thinks their role in determining who will receive the new benefit is “disgusting.”

“The PIP process is fundamentally flawed. I can’t imagine anyone delivering it in a way that isn’t dehumanising,” she says. “The impact will be so shocking. Twenty per cent of disabled people who receive this support are going to lose it . . . I’m terrified.”

Like Sophie Christiansen and Natasha Baker, Tara relies on her mobility allowance to help pay for an adapted car. She now faces the fear of losing it as DLA is removed and assessments for PIP begin.

Under the new rules, claimants must be unable to walk more than 20 metres to receive the enhanced mobility component of PIP - and without this, they will not qualify for the Motability scheme. The narrower eligibility criteria mean it is feared that many people with significant mobility impairments will be denied the vehicle they currently rely on for independence. The Department of Work and Pension’s own estimate is that over the next five years some 428,000 people will lose their eligibility. Disability campaigners are currently working to mount a judicial review on what was a last minute and controversial change to the assessment criteria.

Tara Flood tells me that losing her car would damage every aspect of her life. “I would effectively be isolated in my own home,” she says. “I’d lose my job, my connection to my community, my family.”

She’s clearly angry at the benefit changes but also what she sees as the accompanying, ever prevalent, idea that disabled people are asking too much. “I want to live an ordinary life in a society that treats me as a human being,” she stresses. “That isn’t unreasonable.”

Flood tells me she thinks back on her hope that Great Britain’s Paralympics triumphs would have a positive effect on the lives of disabled people in this country. As she and others face the imminent removal of support they rely on, it seems a cruel irony.

“When I hear ministers talk about the legacy of the Paralympics, saying how good things are . . . What planet are they living on?” she says. “In fact, things have got worse.”

Sophie Christiansen after being awarded her Paralympic gold medal last year. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser